Foreign Investment Law Implementing Regs Open For Public Comment: Administrative and Punitive Enforcement Ascends Again

The Ministry of Justice had published a draft of the Foreign Investment Law Implementing Regulations for public comment.  Chinalawtranslate has prepared an English translation of the proposed regulations and of the law itself.   The due date for submitting comments is December 1.  The US-China Business Council has graciously already made its comments available in English and Chinese to the public.  The Foreign Investment Law was one of several laws enacted earlier in 2019 that appear to be responsive to US concerns and pressure.

The primary provisions addressing IP are Articles 24 and 25, which state:

Article 24: The state is to establish a punitive compensation system for violations of intellectual property rights, promote the establishment of rapid collaborative protection mechanisms for intellectual property rights, complete diversified dispute resolution mechanisms for intellectual property rights disputes and mechanisms for assistance in protecting intellectual property rights, to increase the force of protections for foreign investors’ and foreign-invested enterprises’ intellectual property rights.

The intellectual property rights of foreign investors and foreign-invested enterprises shall be equally protected in the drafting of standards in accordance with law, and where foreign investors’ or foreign-invested enterprises’ patents are involved, it shall be handled in accordance with the relevant management provisions of state standards involving patents.

Article 25: Administrative organs and their staffs must not use the performance of administrative management duties such as handling registration, approvals or filings for investment projects, and administrative permits, as well as implementing oversight inspections, administrative punishments, or administrative compulsion, to compel or covertly compel foreign investors or foreign-invested enterprises to transfer technology.

(chinalawtranslate translation).

The language in the first paragraph of Article 24 appears to track trade war pressures, including demands for punitive compensation.   As I have argued repeatedly, a better focus might be on deterrent civil damages, and/or the basic structure set forth in the WTO of having adequate and effective civil remedies with criminal remedies as an adjunct for willful, commercial-scale harm.  In this scheme, there is little place for administrative remedies, as was noted in DS362 (the IP enforcement case at the WTO).  The WTO panel, in that case, noted that “neither party [the US nor China] to the dispute argues that administrative enforcement may fulfil the obligations on criminal procedures and remedies set out in Article 61 of the TRIPS Agreement. Therefore, the Panel does not consider this issue.”  There have also been numerous academic studies on the challenges of creating a sui generis administrative IP enforcement system in China.  The language in Article 24 is also highly repetitive of the November 21, 2018 special Memorandum of Understanding/campaign mechanisms involving 38 government agencies to address six types of faithless IP conduct, about which I previously blogged.

What is notably absent from these commitments is an obligation to increase transparency, which is especially concerning due to an apparent slowdown in the publication of foreign IP-related court cases since the trade war began.   I will be blogging more about this soon, but here is what the decline in published US cases looks like based on IPHouse data, with a flatlining since January 1, 2018:

iphouse

See also my slides from the recent Berkeley transnational IP litigation conference available here.

The language regarding standards in the second paragraph repeats long-standing concerns about foreigners being excluded from standards-setting processes, as was addressed in the 2015 JCCT.  It does not set forth commitments about fairness or equal treatment which have been raised before in industrial policy drafting (as was addressed in the 26th JCCT on semiconductor policy), antitrust investigations, patent prosecution or litigation (for which there is a wealth of empirical data).

Article 25 also appears trade responsive.  It would be useful at this time to determine the current magnitude of forced technology transfer in foreign direct investment, and to determine how it subsists and whether it has measurably decreased since the trade war began, including whether legitimate licensing transactions have stepped in to provide increased revenue for technology licensors as a result of these and other reforms, including revision of the Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations.

 

 

 

Second Annual Berkeley-Tsinghua Transnational IP Litigation Conference Is Fast Approaching

Transnational-Conference-new-ver-823x1024

Berkeley Law and Tsinghua law will be co-hosting their Second Annual Conference on Transnational IP Litigation, at the campus of UC Berkeley on October 22, 2019.  Details, including registration information, are available here.

The program will look at strategic concerns in many of the hot issues in cross-border US-China IP litigation, including trade secret cases, standards-essential patents, whether foreigners “win” in each other’s jurisdictions, Section 337, criminal cases, on-line enforcement, civil litigation and the role of China’s new IP courts, administrative challenges to validity, forum non conveniens claims, enforcement at trade fairs, and other issues.  Please register soon if you are interested in attending.

We have great speakers and we look forward to having a great audience!

Reviewing the 2017 SPC Report on IPR Judicial Protection: The Generalities and the Exceptions

There have been a number of empirical reports in recent weeks on China’s IP system. In this blog, I look at the annual Supreme People’s Court 2017 Report on the Situation Regarding Judicial Enforcement of IPR in China  (中国法院知识产权司法保护状况) which was released during IP week (the “Report”).

According to the Report, 2017 saw a major increase in IP litigation in China.  There were a total of 237,242 cases filed and 225,678 cases concluded, with an increase of 33.50% and 31.43%, respectively, compared to 2016.

First instance cases increased by 47.24% to 201,039.  Patent cases increased 29.56% to 16,010.  Other increases were in trademarks (37,946 cases/39.58%); copyright (137,267/57.80%); competition-related cases (including civil antitrust cases of 114) (2,543/11.24%).  Two counter-cyclical numbers stand out:  technology contract cases dropped by 12.62% to 2,098, and second instance cases increased by only 4.92% or 21,818 cases. Note that disaggregated numbers for civil trade secret cases are not disclosed in the Report, but are presumably included under “competition” cases.

Comparing dockets with the United States, in 2017 United States courts heard 4,057 cases patent cases, 3,781 trademark cases, and 1,019 copyright cases, according to Lex Machina.  The biggest margin of difference between the US and China was clearly in copyright cases.  Chinese courts heard 134.7 times more cases than the United States. However, Chinese copyright cases are less likely to be consolidated amongst different titles, claims or causes of actions, which can inflate the statistics  — although I doubt to a 100 or more fold level.

Administrative cases, the majority of which are constituted by appeals from the patent and trademark offices, showed an overall increase while patent validity cases decreased.  Administrative patent appeals dropped 22.35% to 872 cases, while administrative trademark cases increased to 7,931 cases, or by about 32.40%.  The drop in administrative patent cases is particularly notable in light of the increased activity in patent prosecution and patent licensing.  By comparison the numbers of Inter Partes Reviews undertaken by the USPTO during 2017, according to Lex Machina, were 1,723, in addition to 9 cases involving covered business method patents.

The SPC did not offer disaggregated reversal rates of the PRB and TRAB in its data; combined patent and trademark cases included 964 cases involved  affirming the administrative agency decisions; 150 involving a change in the administrative decision; 5 cases involved a remand for further review; and 24 cases were withdrawn.

Criminal IP cases have also continued to decline.  There were 3,621 first instance criminal IP cases in 2017, a decline of 4.69%.  Among those 3,425 involved trademarks (-3.93%) and 169 involved copyrights (-13.33%).  There was also a decline of 35% in adjudication of criminal trade secret cases to only 26 cases.  The decline in criminal cases since 2012 (when cases totaled over 13,000) especially in copyrights and trade secrets is odd as Chinese leadership has in fact recognized the need for deterrent civil damages, including punitive damages and criminal trade secret remedies.

The five provinces that receive the most IP cases continued to grow in influence. Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong saw an aggregate increase of 56.63% in IP cases, to 167,613 and now constitute 70.65% of all IP cases filed in China (p. 6).  Guangdong alone saw an increase of 84.7% to 58,000 cases and Beijing trailed behind at 25,932 cases with an increase of 49.2 percent.  Other less popular destinations also saw dramatic increases.  Jilin province had an increase of 210 percent, while Hunan and Fujian each saw increases of 73.8% and 73.14%.

Settlement and case withdrawal rates also changed in 2017.  Shanghai had the highest reported rate of the big five at 76.31%, while the inland province of Ningxia had an overall rate of 88.46%, including a 100 percent rate where litigants accepted judgments without appealing  服判息诉 (!).

The SPC also reported supporting 11 cross-district IP tribunals in Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Hefei, Fuzhou, Jinan, Qingdao and Shenzhen.  In addition, 10 provinces or autonomous cities established a system of combining civil, criminal and administrative jurisdiction over IP cases in their IP tribunals in the first half of 2017.  As noted however, despite this change in judicial structure, there was a decline in criminal enforcement and in some administrative appeals in 2017 overall (p.11).

The Report also notes that the SPC is actively supporting research on establishing a national specialized appellate IP Court (p. 10).   The SPC also actively participated in the providing comments on other draft laws, and devoted some effort to the revisions of the Anti-Unfair Competition law, including meeting three times with the legal affairs committee of the NPC, as well as numerous phone calls   According to the Report, the “majority of the opinions proposed were adopted into law” which leaves the question of what was not adopted.  One possibility may be the removal of a specific provision treating employees as “undertakings” under the revised AUCL.  In fact, I have heard that some NPC legislators are continuing to push for a stand-alone trade secret to further improve upon the revised AUCL.

The Report also points to several research projects undertaken by provincial courts.  Amongst those of interest are: a research project on disclosure of trade secret information in litigation in Jiangsu; a report on using market guidance for damages compensation of Guangdong Province; a report on standards essential patents in Hubei; and a research project of the Beijing IP Court on judicial protection of IP in international competition.

Regarding transparency, the Report notes that the SPC has published all of its cases on the Internet, however similar data is not provided for other sub-SPC courts (p. 16).

In international affairs, the Report notes that the SPC has participated in the discussions on the proposed treaty on recognition and enforcement of foreign civil judgments (p. 17), in the China-European IP dialogue, and has sent people to the annual meeting of INTA, amongst other activities.  No mention is made of US government engagements (p. 17).  This omission may be due to current political sensitivities.  Nonetheless, due to the increasing number of cross-border disputes and the need for better understanding of both our judicial systems, I believe judicial engagement with Chinese courts would continue to be a fruitful enterprise.  Indeed, Berkeley hopes to host a program on cross-border IP litigation with Tsinghua University Law School later this year.

Finally, while we are on the subject of the courts, I commend Susan Finder’s recent blog on how to translate court terminology.   I hope I have not departed too far here from her excellent suggestions!

China’s Plan for Copyright Creativity

copyright

China’s National Copyright Administration released it plans for the 13th Five Year Plan regarding copyright (the “Plan”), attached here (including machine translation).  The plan comes on the back of the State Council’s 13th Five Year Plan for the Protection and Enforcement of Intellectual Property (January 16, 2017), which has further elevated IP in China’s state planning hierarchy.

The Plan reflects the State Council’s decision on China becoming a “Strong IP Country” and includes much of what one might expect from a state planning document on copyright.  For example, it notes that China will complete its revision of the much delated copyright law reforms, as well as related implementing regulations and ministerial rules.  The plan also emphasizes improvement of administrative enforcement, including criminal/administrative coordination, and working with the National IPR Leading Group and other agencies, rather than civil enforcement/remedies/injunctive relief, etc.  The draft also reflects the regrettable tendencies of the patent system of focusing on IP quantity as opposed to quality, with goals of increasing copyright registrations to 2,780,000 and software registrations to 600,000 by 2020, as well as creating additional demonstration cities and other copyright promotion projects.

The plan laudably calls for increased cooperation with foreign countries including “cooperative strategic MOU’s” with the United States and other countries, as well as  “working on more programs with international associations based in Beijing” , and resolution of bilateral issues in a “win-win” environment.

The draft also recognizes that “infringement of copyright is still relatively common, and the copyright environment in reality still needs to take steps forward to improve.”  However the report also notes that China is a “developing country” and it needs to avoid “excessive protection and abusive protection.”

Despite China having a huge copyright civil docket (over 60,000 cases in 2015), the report focuses exclusively on public enforcement and supervision mechanisms, including various interagency efforts, with commitments to:

Further strengthen copyright enforcement coordination mechanisms and promote improvement culture at all levels of law enforcement agencies implementation of the copyright law enforcement mechanisms, effective copyright enforcement in cultural market administrative law enforcement functions, use “anti-piracy and pornography” work organization and coordination mechanisms to strengthen Public security, Industry and Commerce, MIIT, Network Security and other departments, to cooperate and form collaborative copyright enforcement efforts. Strengthening the convergence of copyright administrative law enforcement and criminal justice, actively participate in the construction and use of national action against Counterfeit and Substandard goods enforcement and criminal justice information sharing platform for convergence of, and further information in copyright enforcement cases. Better play an oversight role for local law enforcement supervision and social rights, the establishment of local copyright law enforcement cooperation mechanisms cooperation with corporations, associations and copyright law enforcement mechanisms. [the link inserted is my own addition]

进一步强化版权执法协作机制,推动完善各级文化综合执法机构落实版权执法任务的工作机制,有效发挥文化市场行政综合执法中的版权执法职能,充分运用“扫黄打非”工作组织协调机制,加强与公安、工商、工信、网信等部门的配合、协作,形成版权执法合力。加强版权行政执法与刑事司法的衔接,积极参与建设和使用全国打击侵权假冒工作行政执法与刑事司法衔接工作信息共享平台,进一步推进版权执法案件的信息公开。更好发挥地方执法监管和社会维权监督作用,建立地方版权执法协作机制及版权执法部门与企业、协会合作机制

The government management approach to copyright is also reflected in a call for increased government subventions for copyright creation through “seeking financial support and preferential policies, and increasing the intensity of support for copyright.” This approach could result in further distortions of China’s IP environment, much as has occurred in the High and New Technology Enterprise program.

Note: Wordcloud at the beginning of this blog is from the machine translation of the Plan.

Identical vs. Similar Trademarks in Criminal and Civil Adjudication

Both Judge Bao WenkJiong 包文炯 in Zhichanli, and James Luo on his blog, have recently  published  summaries of a 2014 case in Wuxi (无锡滨湖法院(2014)锡滨知刑初字第0002号刑事判决书) involving the definition an “identical” mark under China’s criminal trademark law.

This case raises the important question of the differing roles and standards for civil and criminal prosecution of trademark infringement – an issue that is especially important in light of the many different manners of enforcing IP in China, which also includes an extensive administrative punishment system.

Judge Bao noted that the court held that attention should be paid to avoiding excessive application of the “trademark similarity” standard of civil trademark cases to criminal cases.  More specifically, the case held that a counterfeit “identical trademark” in the criminal law means one that is identical with the registered trademark or not visually different from the registered trademark and therefor is enough to mislead the public.   Where, however, there is a slight difference between the accused counterfeit trademark and the registered trademark, the close similarity is sufficient to cause the relevant public to be confused and it should also be regarded as an “identical trademark.”

The requirement of an “identical trademark” derives from Article 213 of China’s Criminal Code, which provides:

“Whoever, without permission from the owner of a registered trademark, uses a trademark which is identical with the registered trademark on the same kind of commodities shall, if the circumstances are serious, be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years or criminal detention and shall also, or shall only, be fined; if the circumstances are especially serious, the offender shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than seven years and shall also be fined.”

A 2004 judicial interpretation on criminal IP matters (关于办理侵犯知识产权刑事案件具体应用法律若干问题的解释 (2004)) further clarified what constituted an “identical trademark” for purposes of China’s criminal IP laws:

“Article 8: An ‘identical trademark’ as provided for in Article 213 of the Criminal Law refers to the same trademark as the counterfeited registered trademark, or one that is substantially visually indistinguishable from the counterfeited registered trademark, and is sufficient to mislead the public.”

“第八条 刑法第二百一十三条规定的“相同的商标”,是指与被假冒的注册商标完全相同,或者与被假冒的注册商标在视觉上基本无差别、足以对公众产生误导的商标.”

Why should a higher degree of similarity of trademarks be required in criminal trademark cases but not for civil cases?    The critical test, to my mind, should be whether the infringement is willful, and not whether a cunning counterfeiter designed a mark that is insufficiently identical but nonetheless potentially confusing to a segment of the consuming population.  From a policy perspective, public criminal enforcement of the trademark laws can and should protect public interests greater than the legitimate trademark itself, including such interests as purchases by innocent consumers, protecting investment in brand creation and deterring brand dilution, and addressing the confusion of third parties who may be harmed by using these products.  These policies suggest that more liberal construction of what constitutes an “identical” trademark could be useful.   Indeed some courts in the United States have used civil standards to determine when a trademark is counterfeit (United States v. Petrosian , 126 F.3d 1232, 1234 (9th Cir. 1997).  Nonethelesss, even if prosecutors declined to prosecute an “identical” trademark case, the rights owner may still be free to bring a civil case under the “similar trademark” civil standard.

The Chinese summary of the case notes that the Jiangsu IP courts, where this case was held, play a role in delineating the role of the civil and criminal IP systems, as these courts have combined civil, criminal and administrative case adjudication in one tribunal.  I hope that these courts can play an even greater role in clarifying addressing the public policy needs behind different standards of IP protection under China’s civil, criminal and administrative enforcement regimes.

Summarizing the SPC’s 2015 White Paper

 

WP_20160420_005China releases much of its IP data in April, on the margins of World IP Day (April 26).  This year there have been important conferences summarizing these reports in advance of their release, including reports from the Supreme People’s Court on IP litigation, as well as white paper reports on specialized IP courts in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong.  In addition, there are SPC reports on fifty model cases and 10 big IP casesThe Western media has also reported on some of these reports, as have state run media in Chinese and in English.   This blog has reported on SPC whitepapers and model cases for some time.  As in prior years many provincial courts, such as Hubei, are also reporting out white papers of various kinds, as have IP and administrative agencies, such as Beijing municipality.

As in prior years, interpretation of the data, particularly for the foreign business community, can be challenging.  Here is my digest of the SPC’s important 2015 White Paper:

Foreign Cases Are a Shrinking Share

Perhaps the most dramatic national news from the official national data involving foreigners is that in 2015 foreign related IP cases dropped 22% in absolute numbers from last year, despite an overall increase of 7.2% of total decided IP cases. The total number of civil cases involving foreigners was 1,327.   As a consequence, foreign related IP civil cases as a share of total cases dropped from 1.9% (2013), to 1.8% (2014), to 1.2% (2015).   By contrast, total administrative cases in 2015 were 10,926, of which 4,928 were foreign or about 45%, continuing the trend of an outsized foreign administrative presence, with an undersized infringement role.

Data from other sources also casts some doubt on the “foreign-related” data in the SPC’s report.  The Shanghai IP courts reported that approximately one in six lawsuits received involved an overseas party, with most pursuing trademark or patent infringement claims.  A newly set up database company, IP House, also reported that over 20% of the IP litigation in Beijing involved foreigners.  Former SIPO Commissioner Tian Lipu also cast doubt on data suggesting that the amount of foreign-related IP litigation is under 5%, in a letter to then USPTO Director Kappos.  Conflicting data on foreign-related cases is likely due to the manner of reporting.  Although there is no official explanation I know of, I believe that foreign-related cases are likely those cases reported as foreign related for purposes of suspension of mandatory time frames for adjudication under China’s civil procedure law.  However, litigation commenced by a foreign invested entity in China may be characterized by the SPC as a domestic case.

Another explanation may be that the high level of foreign-related administrative cases may be due to the centralization of IP prosecution in the headquarters of many foreign companies which file these cases in the name of the parent company.  After China’s patent office or trademark office grants the right, the foreign company might then transfer the rights to the subsidiary.  This transfer is validated by the high percentage of related party IP licensing activity which US census also reports. I have not, however, seen any studies that seek to correlate foreign licensing activity, foreign investment and foreign-related litigation, which might support this hypothesis.

As I have noted elsewhere, comprehensive data must, however, await publication of the relevant source cases or data by the SPC and other courts.

IP Cases Continue to Grow Overall

The shrinking reported foreign share contrasts with the rapid growth of IP cases in China.  The SPC reported that newly reported first instance IP cases increased to 130,200, up 11.73% from 2014.  Total cases adjudicated were 123, 059, an increase of 11.68%, of which 101,324  were civil cases, an increase of 7.22%.  Administrative cases adjudicated constituted 10, 926, an increase of 123.57%, most likely due to changes in China’s trademark law which establish a more direct role for the courts.   Criminal cases adjudicated were 10,809, maintaining their slightly decreased level since 2013 (the SPC report notes that the cases are “stable” 同比基本持平)。

Patent Cases Continue to Grow

The SPC reported that patent and licensing cases continued grow, and that they increasingly involved complex areas of technology, with an increase of 22.1% to 13,087 cases.   However, I have not yet seen a breakdown of cases by type of patent or technology type which fully documents this observation.  The data appears too general at this point, considering that perhaps 2/3 of China’s patent cases involve unexamined utility models and designs of varying technological complexity, the relatively small share of licensing disputes, and the reality that many software and unfair competition cases may in fact involve high technology cases (but may not otherwise be reported as such).

Unfair Competition Cases on the Rise

The SPC report shows that unfair competition cases have increased, including those involving the internet and software technologies. Civil cases increased to 2,181, with antitrust cases increasing to 156. The total increase was 53.38%. Trade secret cases have not yet been separately reported out. They are generally a significant share of this relatively small portion of the IP docket. In 2009, for example, there were 1,282 cases under the Law to Counter Unfair Competition in the courts, of which 253 involved trade secrets.

What the Data Suggests on Courts Foreigners May Want to Pay Attention To

A foreigner traveling to China who is considering where to bring a case, or risks of being sued in a particular venue, should not consider all court as equally well situation.  The Beijing courts, for example, clearly play a key role in foreign related IP adjudication. As administrative cases are overwhelmingly located in Beijing, the Beijing IP court hears perhaps 80% of the combined civil/administrative foreign docket.

In addition, the SPC reports that Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong accounted for 70 percent of the first instance IP litigation of all types. Shanghai is also a good place to engage, as it has the SPC has established an international exchanges base there. Indeed, the Shanghai white paper also reported out on its exchange activities, including singling out a significant conference last year with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Still, several courts are assuming increasing importance, and some may pose defensive risks and opportunities for foreigners.   Jiangsu’s docket increased by 38.71%; the docket in Tianjin increased by 50.41%. Anhui saw an increase of 101.26%, while courts in Shandong, Shaanxi, Hunan and Helilongjiang all saw increases of over 30%.

Just as the specialized IP courts were releasing their white papers, the SPC reported that NPC delegates from a number of provinces had been asking to establish their own IP courts in their region, and that the SPC would report out in August on these proposals.  In my opinion, these requests reveal the problem of this otherwise noble experiment in specialized IP courts: if multiple regions have specialized IP courts at the intermediate level, then efforts to insure national unity in reduce local protectionism in IP litigation through a national appellate court may be compromised. However, it is also important to note that these specialized IP courts would replace specialized IP tribunals – a significant difference from US trial court litigation, which  involves courts of general jurisdiction.

At the same time as these papers were being released, a judicial delegation from China was engaging with US federal and state judiciary to discuss the role of IP courts and possibility of future cooperation (see picture above by me from the Wisconsin Supreme Court).  I also believe that we can expect more discussion on these important issue in the months and years ahead.

Beginning the Journey for Trade Secret Reform: the Recent AUCL Draft

A much awaited, proposed public draft revision to the Antiunfair Competition Law was released by the State Council Legislative Affairs Office on February 25, 2016. Comments are due by March 25, 2016.  An open source translation is available here.

This is not an easy law to comment on, as the law combines a range of various issues to varying degrees: competition and fair trade law, trade secrets law, trade dress law, cybersquatting and enterprise name infringements, advertising regulation, bidding law, compliance/anti-bribery, network management and other areas.  Strictly speaking it is not an IP law which focuses on giving individuals private rights.  Rather, it is geared towards ensuring that there is fair competition in the market, as its title suggests.

A key focus for me has been on the trade secret provisions of the draft.  Pertinent provisions are discussed and copied below:

“Article 9: A business operator must not carry out the following acts infringing on trade secrets:

(1) Obtaining rights holders’ trade secrets by theft, enticement, intimidation, fraud, or other improper tactics;

(2) Disclosing, using, or allowing others to use a rights holders’ trade secrets acquired by tactics provided for in the previous item;

(3) Disclosing, using, or allow others to use trade secrets in their possession, in violation of agreements or the rights holders’ demands for preserving trade secrets.

Where a third party clearly knows or should know of unlawful acts listed in the preceding paragraph, but obtains, discloses, uses or allows others to use a rights holders trade secrets, it is viewed as infringements of trade secrets.

(一)以盗窃、利诱、胁迫、欺诈或者其他不正当手段获取权利人的商业秘密;

(二)披露、使用或者允许他人使用以前项手段获取的权利人的商业秘密;

(三)违反约定或者违反权利人有关保守商业秘密的要求,披露、使用或者允许他人使用其所掌握的商业秘密。

“Trade secrets” as used in this Law refers to technological information and business information that are not publicly known, have commercial value, and are subject to corresponding secrecy measures taken by the rights holder.”

Importantly, the draft drops the earlier statutory requirement that trade secrets had to have practical applicability, a “TRIPS-minus” provision which may have had the effect of denying trade secret protection to experimental failures.  The distinction between technical information and business information in this draft may also reflect other laws and government agencies some of which, like the Ministry of Science and Technology and SIPO have expressed interest in “technical trade secrets” or “service invention” compensation for trade secrets. Chinas IP courts similarly have jurisdiction over technical trade secrets, but not business confidential information.

The law also expands the scope of a covered business operator, to include natural persons, which is a positive step:

“‘Business operators’ as used in this Law refers to natural persons, legal persons or other organizations engaged in the production or trade of goods, or the provision of services. (“goods” hereinafter includes services). “(Art. 2)

The draft offers very little in the way of improving procedures for trade secret litigation.  There are improvements to trade secret administrative enforcement.

“Chapter III: Supervision and Inspection

Article 15: When supervision and inspection departments investigate acts of unfair competition, they have the right to exercise the following powers of office:

(1) Enter business premises or other venues related to the conduct under investigation to conduct inspections;

(2) Question business operators under investigation, interested parties, or other entities or individuals, and request supporting materials, data, technical support or other materials relating to the acts of unfair competition;

(3) Make inquiries about, or reproduce, agreements, account books, invoices, documents, records, business correspondence, audio-visual materials or other materials relating to the acts of unfair competition;

(4) Order business operators under investigation to suspend suspected unlawful acts, to explain the source and quantity of property related to the conduct under investigation, and to not transfer, conceal or destroy that property;

(5) Carry out the sealing or seizing of property suspected to be involved with acts of unfair competition;

(6) Make inquiries into the bank accounts of business operators suspected of acts of unfair competition as well as accounting vouchers, books, statements and so forth relating to deposits;

(7) Where there is evidence of the transfer or concealment of unlawful funds, an application may be made to the judicial organs to have them frozen.

Article 16: When supervision and inspection departments are investigating acts of unfair competition, business operators under inspection, interested parties or other relevant units or individuals shall truthfully provide relevant materials or circumstances, shall cooperate with supervision and inspection departments performing duties according to law, and must not refuse or obstruct supervision and inspection.”

Although I believe most right holders seek improvements in trade secret enforcement, including more deterrent remedies, I am uncertain how much those desires extend to administrative enforcement.  Transferring of relevant confidential material to an SAIC official tasked with trade secret enforcement will raise concerns of further trade secret leakage, which are probably not of equal concern in the case of administrative enforcement of, for example, trade dress infringements covered under this draft law.    Moreover, the State Council has elsewhere stated that all administrative cases should be conducted ex-officio.  To me administrative ex-officio enforcement of trade secrets, with authority to enter business premises to inspect and conduct investigations, is problematic.

The draft law also seeks to increase administrative fines for trade secret theft, and improve burden of proof issues:

“Article 22: Where business operators violate the provisions of Article 9 of this law, the supervision and inspection departments shall order them to cease the unlawful acts, and shall impose a fine between 100,000 and 3,000,000 RMB depending on the circumstances; where the act constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility is pursued in accordance with law.

Where the rights holders of trade secrets can prove that information used by others is substantially the same as their trade secrets and that those others had the capacity to obtain their trade secrets, those others shall bear the burden of proof to show that the information they used came from lawful sources.”

It is unclear to me from Article 22, that this “burden of proof” reversal in the second paragraph above applies to administrative enforcement or civil enforcement, or even criminal process.  Moreover, the requirement of substantial similarity of the technology for the shifting to take effect, is probably too high a threshold, having been an impediment for plaintiffs in trade secret litigation in China to date.

Does this law go far enough in addressing trade secret issues in China?

Although SAIC has historically conducted many administrative trademark cases on behalf of foreigners, historically trade secret administrative enforcement has not significantly benefitted foreign companies or small enterprises.  As I previously blogged:

That there were 174 trade secret cases [for 2008-2010] out of 110,896 cases involving the Law to Counter Unfair Competition, or about 0.2% of the total. In addition, the data shows that average fines were 11,624 Yuan, and only 7 cases or about 4 % of the trade secret case were referred to criminal enforcement.  Like the civil system, the administrative system also appears to be frequently used to address employee theft of confidential information.  Precisely one third, or 58 of these 174 cases involved individual respondents; 24 involved private companies  (14%) and 23 cases involved individual businesses (13%).   There were no cases where a state owned enterprise or publicly held company was named as a defendant in an administrative action.  

One may question, therefore, whether this draft revision of the AUCL addresses the full range of substantive and procedural improvements that need to be made to improve trade secret enforcement in China, much of which may be more uniquely linked to trade secret protection compared to other IP rights.  Moreover, many of the problems are amplified by comparison with trade dress or other provisions of this draft law.

Much of the problem with trade secret protection has been in the lack of discovery in the civil system.  One significant advantage of improved trade secret administrative enforcement however could be in facilitating the transfer of information obtained in administrative investigations to civil courts or law enforcement authorities, consistent with State Council guidance on facilitating case transfers.  Improving civil procedures for trade secret cases could also greatly help in civil prosecution of trade secret cases, including by making necessary changes in evidence collection, burden of proof reversals, and other areas.

The current draft appears unduly oriented to instances where trade secret theft has actually occurred.  One critical area concerns the availability of relief for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets including preliminary injunctions, adoption of “inevitable disclosure” type doctrines, and evidence or asset preservation measures.  Such measures can be especially important as the harm that may be caused by a misappropriation may be incapable of being compensated for by the misappropriator or beneficiary of the theft. Although revisions to China’s Civil Procedure Law now permit preliminary injunctions for trade secret theft (Eli Lilly vs. Huang Mengwei),  China may wish to consider specific provisions in this law to facilitate more liberal dispensation of provisional remedies.  China had specifically provided for preliminary injunctive relief in other IP laws, before the most recent Civil Procedure law amendments, and may want to consider appropriate provisions for trade secrets.

Regarding threat of trade secret law, the current law also only addresses “disclosing, using, or allowing others” to use the secret information.   This deficiency could easily be remedies by including language on threat or imminent trade secret theft.    The Uniform Trade Secrets Act in the United States, by comparison, specifically addresses “actual or threatened misappropriation” which may be enjoined, and also provides a remedy for trade secret inducement.  The TRIPS Agreement itself clarifies that a key focus of WTO member trade secret obligations is “preventing information lawfully within their control from being disclosed to, acquired by, or used by others without their consent in a manner contrary to honest commercial practices.” (emphasis added).  The need for preventative measures is also reflected in TRIPS Article 41, which requires WTO members to have “expeditious remedies to prevent infringements.”  In addition, inducement liability is being considered in other China IP laws (patent/copyright) and does not appear to be part of this draft.  A clear definition of inducement liability may be helpful in limiting losses due to third party misappropriation of trade secrets.

China’s trade secret regime also has several other challenges, including difficult criminal thresholds; unclear relationships with labor law, labor mobility regulations, and employee non-competes; difficulties in gathering evidence; unclear divisions among the appropriate role of civil, criminal and administrative remedies;  and even an emphasis on trade secret protection as an aspect of market regulation, rather than as a civil IP right, as is under consideration.    Some of these deficiencies may be cured by judicial interpretation and guidance, as was previously addressed by the Supreme Peoples Court in an earlier Judicial Interpretation.

The focus on market regulation denies trade secret holders in China the ability to address infringement based on where a product that benefits from a trade secret misappropriation is sold, but instead may require litigation where the misappropriation occurred.  See Siwei v. Avery Dennison (Min San Zhong Zi No. 10/2007) (Sup. People’s Ct. 2009) (China).   This may also encourage foreign litigants, concerned about  local protectionism or undue influence of local companies on local courts, to seek remedies elsewhere (such as through Section 337 remedies in the United States).  In addition, the lack of discovery can also lead to the “exporting” of such litigation.  Making these necessary procedural improvements, including improving “success rates” for domestic trade secret cases and improving procedures for gathering evidence, may also enhance China’s position that Chinese judgements in trade secret cases are entitled to res judicata effect in other jurisdictions.

Former SPC Vice President, now Chief Procurator  Cao Jianming 曹建明, noted in 2005,  trade secret enforcement was the area with the “greatest difficulties” for the courts Industry has also raised concerns about many of these deficiencies.  While many of the changes in the AUCL on trade secret protection are positive, a more comprehensive approach could require reforms in other areas, including the practices of law enforcement and the courts, administrative law reform, civil law reform, and/or a stand-alone trade secret law.

My personal estimation: the AUCL draft is a beginning and not an end in the trade secret reform process.